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‘Vast powers must come with responsibility’: SC on Facebook’s role as social media platform

In an 188-page judgment that refused to quash summons to Facebook by a Delhi panel on riots, Supreme Court said Facebook has to be held accountable even as an intermediary.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday noted that Delhi cannot afford a repeat of the communal riots that took place in February 2020 and consequently Facebook’s role in the case needed to be examined.

The observation was made by a bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul as it refused to quash the summons by a Delhi Assembly panel asking the social media giant to appear as a witness in its probe into the northeast Delhi riots.

In its 188-page judgment, the SC bench remarked that the summons issued by the Peace and Harmony Committee, constituted by the Delhi Legislative Assembly to probe the riots, were legitimate.

It also commented on Facebook’s role as a platform that hosts third-party content and noted that it gave space to a diversity of opinion but was also replete with misinformation.

Making note of the principle of ‘unity in diversity’ in India, the court observed that it cannot be allowed to disrupt “at any cost or under any professed freedom by a giant like Facebook claiming ignorance or lack of any pivotal role”.

The SC further cited international reports on how Facebook posts had allegedly fuelled unrest in some countries and influenced results of the 2016 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit referendum.

These comments came on a petition filed by Facebook India and its head Ajit Mohan, seeking to quash the notices issued by the Peace and Harmony Committee.

However, the court found the plea to be premature and pre-emptive. Facebook, the court said, is a platform where political differences are reflected, so the intermediary cannot be allowed to wash its hands off it.

Given the “unprecedented influence” Facebook wields amongst the masses, the court underlined that the platform necessitated the need for safeguards and caution in consonance with democratic values.

Mohan and the Centre’s opposition to the Delhi Assembly committee, on the ground that it lacked legislative competence, was also rejected.

Both had contended that since law and order in the national capital, along with information technology, fall within the Union List, the Delhi Assembly had no jurisdiction to deal with the issues.

However, the top court noted that ultimately it is “the state government that has to deal with the ground reality”.

But the court also sought to strike a balance and cautioned the committee from being “some kind of a prosecuting agency that can embark on the path of holding people guilty”.

It barred the panel from conducting an inquiry on “law and order” situation around the riots and said the two subjects do not fall within its jurisdiction. The court also permitted Mohan or any Facebook representative from not answering questions related to these issues.

The court also expressed its disapproval of the press conference held by the committee’s chairperson Raghav Chadha after issuing the summons against Facebook.

Also read: Delhi panel not a ‘prosecuting agency’ — full text of SC order on Facebook plea against summons

‘Entities like Facebook have to remain accountable’

In its judgment, the top court also disapproved Facebook’s contention that as an intermediary it cannot be hauled for the disruptive messages or voices posted on its platform.

Noting that Facebook has about 270 million registered users in India and 2.85 billion monthly active users worldwide, the court said “such vast powers must necessarily come with responsibility”.

The bench noted it cannot “lose sight of the fact” that Facebook, besides playing a crucial role in enabling free speech, had become a platform for “disruptive messages”.

Rejecting its plea against the summons, the court also noted that concerns have been raised globally about Facebook’s purported efforts to manipulate elections results and public opinion through its vast reach.

This, it added, has resulted in a paradoxical outcome where extremist views are peddled onto the mainstream.

The court said it was difficult to accept Facebook’s “simplistic approach” that is merely a platform hosting third-party information. Such an endeavour, it added, has been found to be unacceptable by UK Parliament as well. It said Facebook cannot deny the use of algorithms with some human intervention to personalise content and news to target users.

Internationally, Facebook has had to recognise its role in failing to prevent division, incitement and offline violence, the court said.

Also read: Not discharging public function, no positive obligation to further free speech: Twitter tells HC

Facebook’s contradictory stand

Facebook had admitted removing 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content in the second quarter of 2020 itself, in court.

This, SC said, showed that the intermediary exercised a substantial degree of control over the content that is allowed to be disseminated on its platform.

It also made note of Facebook’s contradictory stands in different jurisdictions and observed that it cannot be permitted to do so.

For example, in the US, Facebook had projected itself as a publisher that gave it protection under the First Amendment (Right to Freedom of Expression in US), on its control over the material disseminated on its platform.

Conspicuously, in India, the court remarked, Facebook has chosen to identify itself purely as a social media platform, despite its similar functions and services in the two countries.

Delhi Assembly’s role not restricted to legislation

On whether the Delhi Assembly has the competence to set up a panel to probe the riots, the SC bench said that the complexity of communal tensions and their wide-ranging ramifications is a matter affecting the citizens of Delhi.

Therefore, the bench added, it cannot be said that the elected government cannot look into the causal factors in order to formulate appropriate remedial measures.

“Appropriate recommendations made by the State Government in this regard could be of significance in the collaborative effort between the Centre and the State to deal with governance issues,” the court said, reiterating past SC judgments highlighting the need of collaborative governance in Delhi, in view of its unique status.

The court also recognised that “inquisitorial” and “recommendatory” powers of the Assembly could be utilised under the principle of better governance and held that the committee can legitimately attend to such grievances.

However, it would be entitled to deliberate or examine without transgressing into any fields reserved for the Union Government under the Constitution, the bench clarified.

The court also found fault with the ‘Terms of Reference’ of the Committee, which suggested that the panel will recommend action against an individual if incriminating evidence is found or a prima facie case is made out against him for incitement to violence.

While the panel’s lawyer gave up this point of reference when the matter was argued in court, the bench made it clear that this point could not be a part of the remit of the committee.

(Edited by Rachel John)

Also read: It’s Modi govt vs Twitter & Facebook. The result will be a template for rest of the world


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